There’s a few bits of good advice that I’ve stumbled across during my time, and which I’ve sprinkled in some of my posts. I thought it might be worthwhile gathering them into one place.
On solving problems
If you don’t like the problem, then change it into one you do like.
— Dr K Pang
One of the best pieces of advice I picked up was from Dr. K. K. Pang at university some time ago. Dr Pang taught circuit theory, which can be quite a frustrating subject. It’s common to encounter a problem in circuit theory which you just can’t find a way into, making it seemingly impossible to solve. Dr. Pang’s brilliant, yet simple, advice was “If you don’t like the problem, then change it to one you do like.”. Just start messing with the problem, transforming bits of the circuit at random until you find a problem that you can solve.
The trick with overcoming many of the obstacles that life and work throws in front of you is to realize which problem you should be solving.
It’s pointless to try and be original, as someone’s always done it before. Just focus on doing what you’re interested in.
My guitar teacher of many years back, Tom Fryer, had a bit of sage advice. It’s pointless to try to be original, as someone will always have had the idea before you. It’s a big world with a lot of history, and there’s not that many ideas. A more productive approach is to simply plow your own furrow; focus on the problems you want to solve, steal ideas shamelessly if they seem useful, and invent what you need to fill the gaps. It doesn’t matter if what you’re doing is original or not; it’s only a question of how useful and interesting the result is.
This is something that I’ve since seen from a few well known creative folk.
It’s not where you take things from, it’s where you take them to.
Innovation (a related topic) is not a question of having a great idea, or being the best at execution. Results count: what did you do with the opportunity to had?
On being the best
You’ll end up disappointed if you worry about being the best at what you do. It’s a big world and you’ll eventually run into someone has more skill. It’s more important to be happy with what you’ve done.
Another from Tom; he’s a very wise man. No matter how much you practice, some day, probably in an armpit bar in the backwoods, there’ll be someone who blows you away as they have more skills than you. Winning awards or contests doesn’t mean you’re the best; it just means that you’re the most successful competitor at the time. (Or just the most popular, as many contests are actually fashion contests.) Some folk don’t choose to compete.
This ties back to John Kay’s concept of obliquity: the idea that your goals are often best approached obliquely. The most effective path up the hill is usually to weave our way up the slope, rather than directly attack the steepest path.
I call this paradox the principle of obliquity. It says that some objectives are best pursued indirectly. I owe the phrase to Sir James Black, the chemist, whose career illustrates the principle in action. Black made more money for British companies than anyone else in the history of British business, by inventing beta-blockers and anti-ulcerants. The first he discovered in the laboratories of ICI, the second in those of Smith Kline French after he had decided that ICI was more interested in profits than in chemistry. To quote Black ‘I used to tell my colleagues (at ICI) that if they were after profits there were easier routes than drug research. How wrong could one be?’ The attempt to pursue profit too earnestly is pharmaceutical research defeated its own objectives.
The path to sustained success is not to set some imaginary hurdle to jump over – being the biggest or best – but to focus on doing what it is you want to do. IBM – helping business make use of technology – has been successful for over one hundred years. Microsoft – the biggest application developer on the planet – is struggling after a few decades.
Apple’s journey over the last decade or so seems to bear this out.
We just want to make products that we’d love to own.
On being somebody
“Tiger, one day you will come to a fork in the road,” he said. “And you’re going to have to make a decision about which direction you want to go.” He raised his hand and pointed. “If you go that way you can be somebody. You will have to make compromises and you will have to turn your back on your friends. But you will be a member of the club and you will get promoted and you will get good assignments.”
Then Boyd raised his other hand and pointed another direction. “Or you can go that way and you can do something – something for your country and for your Air Force and for yourself. If you decide you want to do something, you may not get promoted and you may not get the good assignments and you certainly will not be a favorite of your superiors. But you won’t have to compromise yourself. You will be true to your friends and to yourself. And your work might make a difference.”
He paused and stared into the officer’s eyes and heart. “To be somebody or to do something.” In life there is often a roll call. That’s when you will have to make a decision. To be or to do. Which way will you go?”
—John Boyd from Boyd: The fighter pilot who changed the art of war
It’s a big choice, but one the career councillors at school seem to gloss over. You can either choose to be someone, to fulfil a specific role such as CEO or rock star, or to do something, such as feed the poor. If you’re lucky, doing something will also allow you to be someone (such as Mother Teresa), but it doesn’t work the other way around.
1. Dr Pang unfortunately passed away in March 2009.↑
2. Greasy Boundaries by the Tom Fryer Quartet at Bar 303 Northcote, Melbourne Australia.↑
3. John Kay (Jan 2004), Obliquity, The Financial Times↑
4. The Economist (2011), Middle-aged blues: The software giant is grappling with a mid-life crisis↑
5. Robert Coram (2002), Boyd: The fighter pilot who changed the art of war, Back Bay Books↑